The Rise of the West Wing

October 20, 2008 — Ask the average person to tell you even the most basic fact about Chester Arthur and the achievements of his presidency, and you are apt to receive a blank stare. Ask instead about Theodore Roosevelt, the man who inhabited the White House just 20 years later, and the response is likely to be much different. Expect to hear about the Roosevelt legend — about the mustachioed trust buster, explorer and soldier who led a brigade of Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

In 1912, four years after he left office, Roosevelt used his celebrity status to run for the presidency against an incumbent of his own party — something unprecedented in American political history. In the process, according to Sidney Milkis, the White Burkett Miller Professor of Politics, he set in motion a series of tectonic shifts that continue to reverberate through the electoral process today and shape our conception of the presidency.

“I study history as a political scientist, with the idea of probing the deep historical roots of contemporary politics,” said Milkis, who is also the assistant director for academic programs at U.Va.’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “From my vantage, the election of 1912 looks more like that of 2008 than that of 1896.”

Because the Republican Party leaders were not likely to be sympathetic to his attempt, Roosevelt appealed directly to the people through the nascent primary system, winning overwhelming victories in nine out of 12 states. When the party insiders who controlled the national convention ignored the primary results and nominated President William Taft, Roosevelt bolted. He formed the Progressive Party, which won more than 27 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, a performance unequaled by any third-party candidate before or since.

For the first time ever in a presidential election, a candidate-centered campaign that appealed directly to and championed public opinion mattered. As Milkis notes, “Not only did Roosevelt’s crusade make universal use of the direct primary a cause célèbre and assault traditional partisan loyalties, it took advantage of the newly emergent mass media and convened an energetic, but uneasy, coalition of self-styled public advocacy groups.” In doing so, Roosevelt helped move the personalities of the candidates to the center of the campaign.

Milkis also argues that the campaign of 1912 resonates today because it marks a shift in the conception of the presidency. Previously, the president ran for office and governed as the head of a party. The Progressives saw the party system, grounded in local perspectives, as an obstacle to the expansion of national administrative power essential to economic and political progress. They called, for instance, for a program of national health insurance and considered that a strong executive would be required to administer it.

Twenty years later, the Depression made it possible to realize this new view of government. As Franklin Roosevelt saw it, the government had a responsibility to protect the individual from the uncertainties of the marketplace — and this meant a stronger executive. As part of the sweeping assumption of responsibility for the individual welfare that characterized the New Deal, Roosevelt signed the Executive Reorganization Act of 1939, which led to the creation of the Executive Office of the President and the West Wing. “Presidents not only campaigned on the basis of their personalities, but also sought to enact programs as the head of a personal organization created in their own image,” Milkis said.

This concept of government has become institutionalized with the passage of time — and has led to an expansion of executive power. Indeed, as Milkis points out, both parties have embraced this change, though for different ends. “As No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug plan show, the right — as well as the left — is interested in using big government to serve its goals,” he said.

— By Charlie Feigenoff

This story originally appeared in Explorations online.